There has been a lot of hype around “gluten-free” diets in recent years. While thousands tout the benefits of going gluten-free, many people aren’t exactly sure what it is or if it’s the right diet for them. If you’re unsure of what “gluten-free” really means or if you should give it a try, here’s a quick and dirty rundown of things you should know:
- The first thing you should know is that a gluten-free diet is used to treat celiac disease.
- So what is celiac disease? Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the small intestine is sensitive to the protein gluten, often found in wheat, rye and barley.
- What are the symptoms of celiac disease? It’s a digestive disease, and symptoms include abdominal bloating and pain, chronic diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, iron-deficiency anemia, osteoporosis, missed menstrual periods and numbness in the hands and feet.1
- How does an allergy cause such a wide array of symptoms? The effect of celiac disease is twofold. First, when gluten is ingested by a person with celiac disease, it can damage the lining of the small intestine, causing uncomfortable digestive symptoms. Secondly, due to the damage of the small intestines, crucial vitamins and minerals don’t get absorbed properly, leading to malnutrition and long-term negative health effects.
- How do I know if I have it? Celiac disease is genetic, so if anyone in your family has tested positive, it’s probably a good idea for you to get checked, too. The disease can occur at any age, and affects people in all parts o f the world. You can get tested for celiac disease with a simple blood test. People with the disease will probably have higher levels of certain autoantibodies that your doctor will be able to identify.
- What if I don’t have celiac disease? Can I still do a gluten free diet? Gluten free diets are only necessary for individuals with celiac disease or a wheat allergy. Before going gluten free, take a closer look at your diet- Is your diet balanced? Are you eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes/beans, nuts/seeds, whole grains, and lean meat/low fat dairy? Often, when someone goes from a diet high in processed foods to “gluten free” they end up increasing other foods groups. This increase in fruits, vegetables, legumes/beans, nuts/seeds which may actually be reliving the symptoms, not the avoidance of gluten. If you’re not convinced, make any appointment with your gastroenterologist and discuss how to determine food allergies or sensitivities.
- Will eating gluten-free help me lose weight? Not necessarily. Don’t fall prey to the idea that “gluten-free” equals “healthy” or “low-fat.” Some processed gluten-free foods are low in fiber so you won’t stay full as long, and they’re often stripped of important nutritional elements. In one case study, the vast majority of participants that adhered to a gluten-free diet gained significant weight.3 And since gluten-free foods often carry a heftier price-tag, you might want to think twice about going free just for weight-loss’ sake.
Takeaways: The gluten-free diet is really only necessary for people who have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Don’t get sucked in to the mindset that gluten-free equals a healthier diet. If you want to improve your health choose a variety of fruits, vegetables, beans/legumes, nuts/seeds, lean meats, low fat dairy, and whole grains.
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1. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) . http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/celiac/#1
2. Antonio Di Sabatino, Gino Roberto Corazza. “Nonceliac Gluten Sensitivity: Sense or Sensibility? Annals of Internal Medicine. 2012 Feb;156(4):309-311.
3. T. A. Kabbani, A. Goldberg, C. P. Kelly, K. Pallav, S. Tariq, A. Peer, J. Hansen, M. Dennis andD. A. Leffler. “Body mass index and the risk of obesity in coeliac disease treated with the gluten-free diet.” Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics. 35:.6; 625-744, March 2012.
4. Biesiekierski JR, Muir JG, Gibson PR. “Is gluten a cause of gastrointestinal symptoms in people without celiac disease?” Curr Allergy Asthma Rep. 2013 Dec;13(6):631-8.